The Beginnings of Free Form
"Free form" is a term used to encompass a whole genreor genresoutside mainstream jazz. Jazz has its roots in spiritual music, Dixieland, New Orleans, blues and ragtime, and after the 1940s these became fused into a catch-all assignation of genre. Jazz took on a predictability that was largely influenced not by the limitations of the players, but by the necessity of filling venues and adhering to musical rules. Jazz became generic and took on a style which was immediately recognizable as "straight" or traditional.
Since the '40s, jazz has calved several offspring. Musicians have taken traditional beats, rhythms and tempos and tweaked, stretched and tempered them into many genres. We now have a very active free form jazz and improvisational scene in Europe; it coexists alongside traditional jazz but has a largely different audience. There are venues which embrace free form and encourage experimental music whilst others will not touch it.
Somewhere in the intervening years between US-led straight-ahead jazz and now, free form was born and began to grow. For a while, free form jazz became linked with political movementsthe art scene as a whole, particularly in the East Village, New York, envisaged a Utopian society with few rules and freedom of thought and religion. Free form is no longer associated with radical thinking, but has evolved into an accepted genre which is still developing. Speak to players, venue managers and promoters and they will tell you the mood is positive and the future looks bright.
I thought I knew about jazz. I played clarinet in orchestras, then oboe, and then switched back to clarinet again, and later sang in bands. I spent years exploring classical, jazz, opera even, but never quite found my niche until I found the Camden Jazz Festival and free jazz workshops, discovering free form for myself. I admit when I was playing or singing I was not that bothered whether the scale was chromatic, minor pentatonic or a harmonic minor, but then again, maybe I wasmaybe I was as fettered as many musicians in the past? I decided I needed to learn more.
I have spent the past months discussing free form with musicians, venue managers and promoters. I have found willing helpers in musicians like reed multi-instrumentalists Peter Brotzmann and Mats Gustafsson, drummer Terry Day, managers like Alan Wilkinson of FlimFlam, and promoter Ian Storrer of Jazz at the Albert in Bristol, UK, and many others whose material will be used for later Fre-Formation articles. These people have contributed in ways far greater than I expected or deserve and have shown support for what I am trying to do with an unexpected open heartedness. I quote with permission and unashamedly because many of them express viewpoints with far more clarity than my rearranging of their words ever could. This series of articles will first discuss the origins of free form from the viewpoints of those involved, then cover the scene at the moment, venues in Europe, the US and the UK (particularly London), the musicians themselves and the future of the genre, as seen by those involved.
Discovering more about free form has not led to peace and harmony; rather, it has led to a desire to know more. I have learned from people who are in tune, not just with the music but with life itself. Those who have offered their thoughts have helped put clarity to the shapes in the mist; they have painted for me a picture which is clearer. However, the more I look at the picture, the more I find out, the more layers I see and the greater the depths. I have encountered managers and musicians both as a player and writer but none seem genuinely as up front and open as free form players. Perhaps that says a lot about the genre in itself?
Music needs to progress, and by the 1950s, there was already a growing band of musicians who wanted to develop jazz further. It is too simplistic to think of these players as being "radical," pushing boundaries and trying to be different as the reasons behind the emergence of free form; it was more a natural evolution and development of jazz to its extremes. Up to that point, for many musicians, there was a sense that jazz had stopped partway through its development; a feeling of more to explore; more notes than diatonic scales could provide; and a distinct lack of spirit, as they became fettered by what was popular and becoming mundane. The spirit of jazz, that wonderful muse which had led so many to the genre, was dying on its feet.